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November 08, 2000|LARRY STEWART

What: "SportsCenter Flashback: Remembering Marshall 30 Years Later"

Where: ESPN, tonight, 7; ESPN Classic, Nov. 14, 4 p.m.

Nate Ruffin was a Florida high school all-state defensive back when he went to Marshall University in Huntington, W.Va., a school trying to build its football program by recruiting players from all over the country in the late 1960s. In 1970, Ruffin was sidelined during the season because of a rib injury and didn't make the trip to Greenville, S.C., for the final game against East Carolina because room was needed on the charter plane for boosters.

In this one-hour documentary, Ruffin tells his version of what is considered the worst tragedy in the history of American sports--the crash Nov. 14, 1970, of a DC-9 jet that killed the Marshall team, the coaching staff and boosters--all 75 people aboard.

Others interviewed for the documentary that will tug at every emotion include Mary Plyde Bell, the widow of one of the boosters on the plane; Red Dawson, an assistant coach who didn't fly back to Huntington with the team; relatives of players who died, and reporters who covered the disaster.

Marshall fielded a team the season after the crash. In the first game of the 1971 season, "the Young Thundering Herd" upset Xavier on the last play of the game. Reggie Oliver, who had been on the freshman team the year before and threw the winning touchdown pass, is among those interviewed.

After some tough seasons, Marshall began winning and was the winningest team in college football in the '90s. The school won two Division I-AA championships before moving to Division I-A in 1997 and thriving with players such as Randy Moss and Chad Pennington.

"It's the most unbelievable story never told," says Chuck Landon, a Marshall student at the time of the crash and now a sportswriter in Charleston, W.Va.

Ernie Salvatore, a sports columnist for the Huntington Herald-Dispatch, says, "That crash humanized Marshall. You had flesh and blood people who lost their lives."

At the end of documentary, Ruffin says, "The curse has changed to a blessing. There is a 12th player looking down on the school, and that 12th player is the people who died in that crash."

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